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Mexican 'Narco-Plane' Crashes in Ecuador

A suspect plane carrying over $4 million in cash crashed in northwest Ecuador, killing two Mexican citizens on board, in an indication of the importance of the country as a drug transhipment point and money laundering location.

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The Mexican-registered light aircraft (pictured) crashed on Sunday into the so-called "Hill of Death," 26 kilometers southeast of Pedernales in the Pacific province of Manabi. It did not have permission from Ecuador's aviation authority, which stated that the plane was flying too low in order to avoid being detected by radar, reported AFP.

Authorities believe that the two deceased Mexicans were either planning to launder the money, estimated to be $4-5 million in US currency, or use it to purchase narcotics.

Ecuador's Interior Minister Jose Serrano declared that while transnational criminal organizations are not necessarily located in Ecuador, they do operate through the country, which is an important transit point for drugs, reported El Universo.

According to El Comercio, this is the fourth Mexican suspected narco-plane to be found in Ecuador since 2003. The most recent was discovered in September with 1.5 tons of narcotics on board, reportedly belonging to a Mexican-headed criminal group.

InSight Crime Analysis

If the crashed plane was indeed carrying money to pay for a drug shipment, this would be further evidence of Mexican groups' presence in Ecuador. The country's drug trade is dominated by Mexican and Colombian gangs, with the Colombian Rastrojos reportedly the most powerful criminal organization in Ecuador, sending drug shipments from Pacific ports up to Mexico. The Mexican Sinaloa Cartel are also thought to be present.

Mexican criminal organizations are increasing their control further down the drug supply chain, coming to South America themselves to carry out drug deals and organize the shipments north. Though not a major drug-producing nation, Ecuador is a key transit point for narcotics. According to the UN, the Andean country seized the second highest quantity of cocaine in South America in 2009.

The money laundering thesis is also plausible -- Ecuador is a good location for laundering illicit funds, as it uses the US dollar as its currency.

Last month, Ecuador's defense minister unveiled a plan to train some 4,000 military personnel to combat organized crime, days after President Rafael Correa declared that the military was key to a successful fight against criminal gangs. This followed concerns within the military command, expressed in a leaked document, that the country could soon be overrun by organized crime.

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